Thoughts on the issue of sexual violence of the Japanese military in China <Part 2> -A dilemma in reproducing the pain and damage caused by the sexual violence of the Japanese military in China

Posts Lee Sun-IResearch Professor, KyungHee University Institute of Humanities

  • Created at2019.03.13
  • Updated at2021.11.24

A dilemma in reproducing the pain and damage caused by the sexual violence of the Japanese military in China:
A work of Ding Ling (丁玲, 1904-1986) and the victims


The testimony of the victims introduced in Part 1 was made between 1992 and 2000 when Hou Donge (侯冬娥, born in 1921) began to speak out. Once we come across the oral statements of the ‘comfort woman’ victims of the Japanese military in China, we are able to recall the work of Ding Ling, a Chinese writer who dealt with the sexual violence committed by the Japanese military during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and the sensation that gathered pace in Chinese society for the work. The sexual violence on the battlefield and its reproduction, the response of the post-war Chinese society towards the violence and the emergence of testimonies, each issue is linked to each other, and there may be an important implication in it.

Ding Ling is a writer who made his literary debut in 1927 and published works with a rich feminine touch until he was criticized in the 1942 political movement. Ding Ling worked in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities before moving to Yan'an, the base of the Communist Party of China, in 1936. Ding Ling wrote several works on the issue of the sexual violence of the Japanese military, while obtaining various experiences on the battlefield in northern China. These are the 「Reunion (重逢)」 written in 1937, 「New Belief (新的信念)」 and 「When I Was in Rosy Village (我在霞村的时候)」 written in 1939 and 1941, respectively.


Young Ding Ling

New Belief (新的信念)

Ding Ling dealt with the three works under the direct themes of war and sex, among which, let us first look at the contents of the New Belief written in 1939. The protagonist, Chen, is taken capture by Japanese soldiers in the village with her grandchildren, raped, and sent to the elderly association to be forced to perform chores such as doing the laundry. In front of the Japanese soldiers, she is humiliated as she is forced to engage in sexual acts with Chinese men. Her grandson who was caught with her was murdered while her granddaughter was raped and then sent to a ‘comfort station’ located somewhere else. Chen finally returns to her village, but she continues to remain in a coma. Chen's son is angered by the fact that his mother, his hometown village, Shanxi, and China have been violated by the Japanese military, and encourages people to stand up and take the fight against the Japanese. As she returns to consciousness, Chen openly reveals the rape committed by the Japanese military against her, denouncing the brutality of the Japanese military. She then sends her son to join the Red Army and urges people to fight against the Japanese. Meanwhile, her granddaughter, Jingu, stays by her side, and displays deep sympathy and understanding for the women who have suffered deep wounds caused by being raped. After learning about the suffering, the adopted daughters of the victims, Wan Aihua (万爱花, born in 1930) and Nan Erpu (南二仆, born in 1912), deeply comprehend their mothers and shared their warm feelings towards each other, which overlaps with the images of Chen and Jingu.   


When I Was in Rosy Village (我在霞村的时候)

Ding Ling wrote 「When I Was in Rosy Village」 three years after she published 「New Belief」 The work also deals with wartime rape by the Japanese military, but raises issues from a completely different angle. Since 「New Belief」 talks about ‘rape’ within the discussion on the “ethnic group” that was violated by the Japanese military, it would be a work aimed at boosting war sentiment for the anti-Japanese war. Also, this work has never been an "issue" in Chinese society. However, 「When I Was in Rosy Village」 appears to take issue with the perception that rape is considered as an act of "shame".

Ding Ling published a comedy called 「Reunion (重逢)」 in 1937. The protagonist of the comedy, Bailan, a female intellect, is asked to be captured by the Japanese military and falsely surrenders to act as a spy. A tragedy then unfolds caused by the encounter between Bailan, who accepted the request, and her former colleague in captivity. It tells how a helpless individual (woman) becomes a tool of war in an immense system of war. If this work is read along with 「When I Was in Rosy Village」, which was written in 1941, it offers more specific issues that were deemed to be conceptual and abstract in 「Reunion」.

The protagonist of 「When I Was in Rosy Village」, ZhenZhen (贞贞), is raped by the Japanese military who entered her village and then taken away to become a ‘comfort woman’ for Japanese military officers. She then acts as a spy in the Japanese military at the request of the party. The look of the villagers towards her is cold and cruel as she returns to her village for treatment after suffering from a venereal disease. First, Ding Ling does not only show anger towards the Japanese military for the series of rapes committed at their pleasure but also takes issue with the daily perception regarding the damage caused by sexual violence as a woman’s shame through descriptions of the villagers criticizing ZhenZhen. Second, ZhenZhen's former lover, Xia Dabao, "felt the need to warm her soul with compassion that is different from those who express sympathy." Third, it describes the sense of incompatibility felt by young people who praise ZhenZhen as a "hero." It is read as an expression of distrust in the fact that the entity (the side of revolution), which is supposed to protect women from the rapes committed by the enemy, demanded her to endure rape for the sake of the country and the people. Finally, she shows her support for ZhenZhen to escape all of this and find her own way.


The ‘comfort woman’ victims of the Japanese military that Ding Ling met

Ding Ling is faced with the reality of the female victims as she acquires experience in the revolutionary base and travels around the battlefield. A writer with delicate sensibilities, Ding Ling, would have come to recognize the layered aspects of the issue after witnessing the harrowing reality. The oral statements of the six people introduced in Part 1 almost match with the sufferings of ZhenZhen , the main character of 「When I Was in Rosy Village」. Certainly, there is a difference in that the author, Ding Ling, implied an aspect of reality in the life of the victim, ZhenZhen, and above all, portrayed hope for the real world.

The Communist Party member, who demanded that she endure violence from the Japanese military and serve as a spy was a real person, as was the village chief of the Communist Party, who bore a part in the second sufferings of Hou Donge. He begs Hou Donge to endure the violence of the Japanese military 'for the sake of the village.' Liu Mianhuan (刘面换, born in 1927) was also abandoned by her boyfriend as she suffered the pain of not being able to reveal her suffering as it “may bring shame to her.” ZhenZhen's ex-boyfriend Xia Dabao asks her to marry him, but the underlying perception of his marriage proposal and the perception of the boyfriend of Liu Mianhuan are not far apart. After suffering torture and violence, Wan Aihua changed her name to Liu Chunlian and managed to maintain a life away from her village. She never returned to the village until she filed a lawsuit in Japanese court in 1992. Was the new life of ZhenZhen less painful than Wan Aihua? Nan Erpu committed suicide after suffering from severe hardships during the Cultural Revolution in China as she had been taken away by the Japanese military, become pregnant and gave birth after being subjected to violence. Hou Donge also attempted suicide due to the shock of being deprived of his party membership in the midst of a political campaign. Liu Mianhuan was also criticized during the political struggles, forced to offer self-criticism, and her children were subject to severe suffering due to her past. Yuan Julin (袁竹林, born in 1922) and Lin Yajin (林亞金, born in 1924) were also criticized during the political struggles in the late 50s and their lives were put at risk. As the violence against most of the Chinese victims by the Japanese military was committed close to their villages, their neighbors knew about their sufferings in great detail. Therefore, the poor treatment and contempt surrounding them were even more severe, and they had to move on, while still having to suffer the resultant mental distress.

Ding Ling became the head of the "Northwest Battlefield Service Corps" that boosted the morale of the Red Army and traveled around the battlefield, directly or indirectly witnessing a wide range of victims in the northern part of China. There, she wrote 「When I Was in Rosy Village」 to talk about not only sexual violence by the Japanese military but also the internal issue of Chinese society. Although she had not met any girl in person who had a similar experience as ZhenZhen, she heard about the story from a friend who returned from the front line and wrote the work based on this story.

Northwest Battlefield Service Corps


Ding Ling once talked about the daily perception of society towards the person who became the model of ZhenZhen.

"I felt great sympathy for her in my heart. A large number of people fell victim during the war. She also suffered many hardships that she should have never experienced. She was a victim of fate. However, people were not aware of her experience and made no effort to try to understand her. Not only did they not try to understand her, but they even despised her for being shamed by the enemy. Therefore, after thinking about this issue for a long time, I realized that I had to write about it."

As I read the oral archives of the victims half a century after their suffering, the reality seems to have been much harsher than the description in Ding Ling's work. However, just like the victims, who were labeled "historical anti-revolutionaries" throughout the 1950s and 60s, Ding Ling was harshly criticized for her ideology around the same time. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, literary critic Zhou Yang criticized that Ding Ling “glorified women like ZhenZhen who became prostitutes by the Japanese aggressors as a goddess” in her book 「When I Was in Rosy Village」. Due to this criticism, Ding Ling had to leave for the cold, bare land, after suffering a politically irrecoverable blow.


Ding Ling during the Anti-Rightist Campaign


Ding Ling must have wanted to create a language for the female victims through ZhenZhen. The situation in which Hou Donge, the first victim to file a lawsuit against the Japanese government, was unable to talk about her suffering even though she had been interacting with the investigator, Zhang Shuangbing (张双兵) for 10 years tells us a great deal. Due to Zhang Shuangbing's persistent persuasion, she painfully said, "Even when there were no diplomatic relations between China and Japan, no one stepped up to vent my spite. Now that the diplomatic relations have been established, it wouldn’t be possible to do so,” as she spoke her mind. We can read here the history of not being able to create a "language" to describe sexual violence by the Japanese military from the viewpoint of the female victims. The time when the victims in China began to speak out would have occurred much later without the official statement of Kim Haksoon in Korea. As the victims began to speak out, the people in China also began to make every effort to address this issue.

I believe we should now think about the sexual violence by the Japanese Empire through the oral statements of the victims and the frustration of Ding Ling's dreams. The structure of violence and holding the Japanese military and the Japanese as a nation responsible are essential, but it may not be possible for them to result in the fundamental solution. Such feelings will cause extremely deep and painful thoughts and reflection on the lives of each of us when we look at this issue. Only if our thoughts continue to that point, will we be able to write a different history.


To be continued in Part 3.   

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Writer Lee Sun-I

Lee Sun-I (Research Professor of The Humanities Studies at Kyunghee University)